Student View: Campus Life Not Catholic

A more in-depth look at the Cardinal Newman Society’s study of faith on Catholic college campuses.

DAYTON, Ohio — In our Nov. 9 story, the Register broke the news of a groundbreaking new survey that shows that Catholic schools are often deleterious to their students’ faith.

In following up on the story, we found that those results weren’t news to Catholic students. When David Thomas, a junior at the University of Dayton, heard the results, he wasn’t surprised. If anything, he says, the situation on campus is actually worse than the numbers reveal.

“If you go out on weekends at all, I can’t think of too many people who aren’t having sex,” said Thomas. “I think these numbers might be less surprising if you saw the actual environment. I don’t think the culture at secular schools is that much different from this one.”

The survey numbers, from the Center for the Study of Catholic Higher Education, a division of the Cardinal Newman Society, paint a picture of large percentages of students at the nation’s Catholic colleges and universities engaged in immoral behavior and a lack of belief in Catholic teachings.

The survey found that half of college women were engaging in premarital sex, while about four out of 10 college men did.

If there is any bright spot in the numbers, it’s the difference between the general student population and students the study describes as “sacramentally active.” For the purposes of the study, “sacramentally-active” students are those who attend Mass at least once a week and go to confession at least once a year.

Of the total number of students surveyed (506), just more than half, 53%, said they participate in a Catholic Mass at least weekly. Sixty-one percent reported going to the sacrament of reconciliation at least once during their most recent year attending a Catholic institution of higher learning.

The differences aren’t great though, as the following results show:

• 46% of current and recent students said they had engaged in sex outside of marriage, while 41% of sacramentally-active Catholics said they did.

• 31% of respondents said they regularly got drunk; 27% of sacramentally-active Catholics said they did.

• 60% of students agreed strongly or somewhat that abortion should be legal, while only 50% of sacramentally-active Catholics agreed with that statement.

• 57% of students overall agreed strongly that same-sex “marriage” should be legal; the number falls to 48% among sacramentally-active Catholics.

• 67% of students agree strongly or somewhat that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist; 69% of sacramentally-active students do.

Except for the last point, the difference between the two groups in matters of faith seems to be greater than the difference in matters of behavior.

“We find no more than a five-point difference between all respondents and sacramentally-active Catholics with regard to having premarital sex and getting drunk at a Catholic college or university,” noted Patrick Reilly, president of the Manassas, Va.-based Cardinal Newman Society, which commissioned the study.

The Register publishes a yearly Catholic Identity College Guide, in which colleges and universities respond to 10 yes-or-no questions based on relevant Church documents. The guide, which includes 28 schools this year, can be found at under “Resources.”

Influencing Behaviors And Beliefs

But another national Catholic organization concerned with higher education seems not to be too concerned by the results.

“These kind of results come out and people get outraged,” said Richard Yanikoski, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. “We at Catholic colleges have the same problem that every set of responsible parents does. The young have the enthusiasms of young people who want to confront the world on their own terms. We can’t stop that.

“To the extent that these things happen is a combined failure of parents, parishes, campuses and the marketing industry,” said Yanikoski, who said that while some smaller colleges are selective and have a homogenous and more devout student body, that isn’t possible on larger campuses.

Steve Wagner, president of QEV Analytics, the public opinion research firm that conducted the study, had a different take. “While most Catholic colleges and universities appear to have capitulated to the prevailing culture, those that are trying to make an effort to teach the faith and catechize are meeting with success,” Wagner said. “At those institutions that are talking to students about the faith, we see a significant difference in student behavior.”

As examples, Wagner said that at institutions which encouraged Mass attendance, students were more likely to attend the liturgy.

“Of those who attended institutions that discouraged sex between unmarried students, just under half were less likely to engage in premarital sex,” said Wagner.

“There is an opportunity to influence the behaviors and attitudes of the students under the charge of the administrations at these institutions,” said Wagner. “When you make that effort, it makes a difference. Therefore, it’s discouraging that more schools aren’t making that effort.”

Courtney Burns graduated from Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., last spring. She said that there are many things campuses can do to prevent such behaviors.

“They can’t supervise all the time,” said Burns. “But there are things that can be done to make such things less likely to happen.”

‘Guys Walking Around In Pajamas’

As one example, Burns spoke of Thomas Aquinas’ single-sex dorms.

“The opposite sex isn’t allowed to go in. It’s pretty segregated,” said Burns. “Therefore, you don’t have guys and girls in dorms together, which is a huge help.”

She also spoke of the ready availability of the sacraments.

“We have Mass available four times per day on campus, so there’s no excuse for not going,” said Burns. She estimated that more than 50% of the student body regularly attends Mass during the week, along with many faculty and administrators.

“Confession is available before and after every Mass,” Burns added.

Burns’ brother is a freshman at the University of Dallas.

“When I visit him, I can go into his dorm,” she said. “You see guys walking around in their pajamas.”

While the University of Dallas does allow opposite-sex visitation, there are visiting hours and rules.

At the University of Notre Dame, each dorm has its own chapel, and there are more than 100 Masses offered each week.

“There’s really no excuse not to go,” said sophomore Raymond Le Grand. “I would like to think that those who are attending Mass have more moral behavior.”

Yet, given the prevailing culture, Le Grand said that he could see how the survey’s results could be realistic.

“Notre Dame is at the crossroads of the culture wars,” he said. “At some universities there isn’t any Catholic culture, and at others, they’re completely Catholic. Notre Dame is somewhere in-between. Because of that you find all types of people and behaviors.

“It would be easy for someone to avoid having the Catholic culture affect them,” said Le Grand. “While Notre Dame requires two semesters of philosophy and theology, it would be easy for students to get involved in other things and not have that affect them.”

Reacting to the results, Anne Hendershott wondered if it wouldn’t be better for students to attend secular universities with active Catholic ministry centers.

“In some ways, Catholic universities are worse because professors are dismissing and minimizing the Church’s teachings,” said Hendershott, a professor of urban studies at The Kings College in New York City and author of the forthcoming Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education. “Elsewhere, they don’t talk about it.”

Whether large Catholic university or small, one thing is for certain: The survey results demonstrate the need for further exploration.

“For each of the areas studied, comparison to students at non-Catholic colleges and universities would be interesting,” said the Newman Society’s Reilly. “It might also be useful to pointedly acknowledge the variety among Catholic colleges and universities by comparing subsets identified by size, location and some measure of Catholic identity.”

Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy